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20 Perennial Vegetables to Plant Once and Enjoy Forever!

20 Perennial Vegetables to Plant Once and Enjoy Forever!

Perennial vegetables—crops that you plant just once and harvest year after year—are relatively rare in North American gardens.

With the exception of asparagus, rhubarb and artichokes, most gardeners are probably unaware of the tasty, extremely low-maintenance bounty that can be harvested when many annual crops aren’t available.

A Brief History of Perennial Crops

According to Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier, most North American gardening and farming traditions come from Europe, where there are very few perennial crops except fruits and nuts.

Cold and temperate Eurasian agriculture centered around livestock, annual grains and legumes, and early European settlers to North America simply brought their seeds and their cultivation methods with them, including draft animals for plowing up the soil every year.

However, in more temperate and tropical areas of the world, including much of North America, perennial root, starch and fruit crops were actively bred, selected and cultivated. These perennial crops were favored perhaps because they require less work to grow, and lacking large domesticated draft animals, only hand tools were available for farming.

Whatever the origin of our neglect of these amazing plants, we shouldn’t ignore these useful and productive foods any longer. Perennial vegetables should be much more widely available, especially because, compared to annual crops, they tend to be more nutritious, easier to grow, more ecologically beneficial, and less dependent on water and other inputs.

Benefits of Perennial Vegetables

Perennial Vegetables are Low Maintenance

Imagine growing vegetables that require just about the same amount of care as perennial flowers and shrubs—no annual tilling and planting. They thrive and produce abundant and nutritious crops throughout the season. Once established in the proper site and climate, perennial vegetables planted can be virtually indestructible despite neglect. Established perennials are often more resistant to pests, diseases, drought and weeds, too.

In fact, some perennials are so good at taking care of themselves that they require frequent harvesting to  prevent them from becoming weeds themselves! The ease of cultivation and high yield is arguably the best reason for growing them.

Perennial Vegetables Extend the Harvest

Perennial vegetables often have different seasons of availability from annuals, which provides more food throughout the year. While you are transplanting tiny annual seedlings into your vegetable garden or waiting out the mid-summer heat, many perennials are already growing strong or ready to harvest.

Perennial Vegetables Can Perform Multiple Garden Functions

Many perennial vegetables are also beautiful, ornamental plants that can enhance your landscape. Others can function as hedges, groundcovers or erosion control for slopes. Other perennial veggies provide fertilizer to themselves and their neighboring plants by fixing nitrogen in the soil. Some can provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, while others can climb trellises and provide shade for other crops.

Perennial Vegetables Help Build Soil

Perennial crops are simply amazing for the soil. Because they don’t need to be tilled, perennials help foster a healthy and intact soil food web, including providing habitat for a huge number of animals, fungi and other important soil life.

When well mulched, perennials improve the soil’s structure, organic matter, porosity and water-holding capacity.

Perennial vegetable gardens build soil the way nature intended by allowing the plants to naturally add more and more organic matter to the soil through the slow and stead decomposition of their leaves and roots. As they mature, they also help build topsoil and sequester atmospheric carbon.

Drawbacks of Perennial Vegetables

  • Some perennial vegetables are slow to establish and may take several years to grow before they begin to yield well. (Asparagus is a good example of this.)
  • Like many annuals, some perennial greens become bitter once they flower, therefore they are only available very early in the season.
  • Some perennials have strong flavors which many Americans are unaccustomed to.
  • Some perennials are so low-maintenance that they can quickly become weeds and overtake your garden, or escape and naturalize in your neighborhood. (Daylilies are a good example of this.)
  • Perennials vegetables need to be careful placed into a permanent place in your garden, and will have to be maintained separately from your annual crops.
  • Perennials have special pest and disease challenges because you can’t use crop rotation to minimize problems. Once some perennials catch a disease, they often have it forever, and need to be replaced.

Perennials Grown As Annuals

Some perennial crops are grown as annuals because they are easier to care for that way. For example, potatoes are technically perennials, but we grow them as annuals because pests and disease pressure in North America requires us to rotate potatoes often.

On the other hand, some plants we grow as annuals do quite well as perennials, like kale.

Cultivating Perennial Vegetables

One way to incorporate perennial veggies into your garden is to expand the edges of an already established garden. Simple extend an existing garden bed by 3 or 4 feet and plant a border of perennials there.

Or, if you already grow a perennial ornamental border or foundation shrubs, consider integrating some perennial vegetables, such as sea kale or sorrel. Many have attractive leaves or flowers to enhance the landscape.

You can also take advantage of currently unused areas of your landscape, matching the conditions to the appropriate perennial. There are some perennials, like wild leeks, that will grow in shady, wet or cool conditions where you couldn’t ordinarily grow food!

If you’re already growing perennial vegetables and want to take your garden or homestead to the next level, consider Permaculture gardening.

By imitating nature’s ecosystems, this approach promotes greater partnerships between plants, soil, insects and wildlife. In Permaculture designs, edible vegetables, herbs, fruiting shrubs and vines grow as an understory to taller fruit and nut trees. This technique is sometimes called “layering” or building a “guild.”

Layers or Guilds need to be built over a couple of years. In the first year, plant fruit trees as the outposts around your property. That same year and over the next several years, use sheet mulching to prepare planting areas beneath the trees for the understory plants. Sheet mulch a 2- to 3-foot-radius around each fruit tree the first year and gradually increase the mulched area as the trees grow.

After the first year, you can begin planting the mulched area with perennial vegetables, fruiting shrubs and vines. (For more on this method, see Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.)

20 Awesome Perennial Vegetables for North American Gardens

Perennial_VegetablesThere are many perennials crops that are known and loved by gardeners everywhere, including these ten common ones:

  • raspberries, blueberries and other berry bushes
  • asparagus
  • rhubarb
  • kale (usually grown as an annual)
  • garlic (usually grown as an annual)
  • radicchio (usually grown as an annual)
  • horseradish
  • globe artichokes
  • lovage
  • watercress

But there are actually hundreds of perennial fruits and vegetables that will grow in temperate and warm climates like are found in North America!

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier is the undisputed bible on this subject. With 241 full-color pages covering over 100 perennial crops that you can grow at home, you will be amazed and inspired to try something new in your garden every Spring!

For each plant, this gorgeous softcover reference includes range maps, color photos, climate and historical information, complete instructions for how to raise, tend and harvest, and even recipes and cooking ideas.

Perennial vegetables make the perfect complement to annuals in the garden, and this book will show you lots of ways to incorporate them into both your landscape and pantry.

Here are ten delicious, easy-to-grow perennial vegetables you may not know about yet. I’ve selected these from among dozens of perennial vegetables carefully described in Perennial Vegetables for taste, ease of cultivation and cooking, and broadest climate range.

Some of the following perennials grow wild in many parts of North America, but because they are over-harvested or they grow in fragile landscapes, it is usually better and more reliable to cultivate your own patch at home. That way you can also plant special cultivars of these wild edibles, carefully selected for taste and adapted for garden conditions. (See nursery list in Resources, below.)

No gardener or homesteader serious about growing their own food should be without some of these perennials in their landscape!

1. Bunching or Egyptian Onions

Egyptian Walking Onions

Egyptian Walking Onions

Some types of onions, such as the fall-planted bunching and Egyptian onions, continue to produce new onions even when some are harvested. The Egyptian onion (Allium cepa var. viviparum) produces small bulbils at the top of its stalk in late summer. You can use these tiny onions as they are, or plant them in the fall to grow more Egyptian onions. Zones 4-8.

2. Daylilies

As any gardener will tell you, daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) thrive on neglect. So much so, they have naturalized across the United States. While they are primarily grown as ornamentals in North America, they are grown as a vegetable in Asia, harvested for their daily profusion of flower buds, which are used like green beans. The flowers themselves are served in salads or battered and fried. Zones 2-10.

3. Good King Henry

good-king-henry

Good King Henry

Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is a traditional European vegetable known for its tasty shoots, leaves and flower buds. This spinach relative grows in full sun or partial shade and moist, well-drained soil. Harvest the tender shoots in spring. Hardy to Zone 3.

4. Groundnut

Native to eastern North America, groundnut (Apios Americana) is a nitrogen-fixing, 6-foot vine that bears high-protein tubers that taste like nutty-flavored potatoes. Grow groundnut vines near a shrub (as support) in a moist site that receives full sun or partial shade. Harvest in fall. Hardy to Zone 3.

5. Jerusalem Artichoke

sunchoke

Sunchokes

In the same family as sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus, also called sunchokes) are grown for their underground tubers. You can eat them raw or cooked like potatoes. Their charming yellow flowers attract beneficial insects to the garden. Jerusalem artichokes are vigorous plants that spread by underground rhizomes and may become difficult to eradicate. Some gardeners consider them invasive. Zones 4-9.

6. Ostrich Fern

Many gardeners grow Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) for their ornamental value, not realizing that they can be grown for their delicious, early Spring fiddleheads, which are a coveted delicacy in fine dining restaurants nationwide. (Fiddleheads pictured at the top.) They love cool, shady spots and are very hardy from Zones 2-8.

7. Ramps or Wild Leeks

Ramps are an onion relative (Allium tricoccum) that grows wild in deciduous forests east of the Mississippi, emerging every Spring. They are a local delicacy that many people forage from the wild. How much easier to simply grow your own? Leaves and bulbs are both edible. Grow in a shady border in moist loam, or naturalize beneath trees. Hardy to Zone 4.

8. Scarlet Runner Beans

Scarlet Runner Beans

Scarlet Runner Beans

Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are usually grown as ornamentals in most people’s gardens, but they are quite edible and nutritious, both as green beans and, later, as dried beans. The flowers, young leaves and tubers are also edible when cooked. Some Scarlet Runner beans plants have been known to live 20 or more years, practically taking over a garden! Hardy to Zone 4.

9. Sea Kale

Sea Kale (Crambe maritime) is sometimes grown as an ornamental for its gray-blue leaves and white flowers on 3-foot-tall plants. The shoots, young leaves and flowers are edible, too. Hardy to Zone 4.

10. Sorrel

sorrel

French Sorrel

Sorrel is a perennial herb with tart, lemon-flavored leaves used for soups, stews, salads, and sauces. The two main sorrels grown are common sorrel, Rumex acetosa, and French sorrel, Rumex scutatus. They are relatives of rhubarb, and the leaves contain small amounts of oxalic acid that’s not harmful when consumed in small quantities, (unless you are sensitive to oxalates). Sorrel tastes best in early spring; it becomes bitter as the weather warms. It’s a delicacy that is hard to find in markets because it wilts shortly after harvest. Garden sorrel is hardy to Zone 5; French sorrel is hardy to Zone 6.

Resources

Perennial seeds and plants can be hard to find, depending on where you live. Here are some resources to get you started.

Nurseries

Books

Online Reference

What perennial vegetables do you grow?

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Thank you for your support!

MEDICAL DISCLOSURE: Your health is between you and your health care practitioner. Nothing in this blog is intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations is at the choice and risk of the reader.




37 Comments

  1. I have so many questions! One big one is about regeneration: for the ostrich ferns, if you’re cutting off the fiddles, aren’t you just taking the plant before it grows into something that would look nice in your yard? Similar question with the daylilly bulbs – aren’t you digging up the plant and terminating it when you eat it? For kale — we’ve had the same kale in our yard for a year, and lately it’s been growing buds and trying to flower. The shape of the plants has changed dramatically, and the leaves are getting skinnier. I took that as a sign to pull them. No?

  2. Thanks for this article. With limited garden space and too much backyard shade this definitely add some options. Just ordered the book for my Kindle and can’t wait to read it.

  3. older thread but I still wanted to mention that I have a tiny cherry tomato that grows like grapes in bunches and comes back every year from seed in zone 3. It was a wild tomato from salt spring seeds, and there are so many fruits that they cover the ground in the fall. Come spring I have to actually pull tomato plants as weeds. A very tasty tiny tomato that is very frost resistant. I use for salads and juice and drying and smoking. They are too juicy for paste making. Not a true perennial here but gives very early tomatoes even if you do nothing but let them grow where they sprout

  4. Sorrel will winter over in protected spots of Zone 4.

  5. I live in Las Vegas, which zone is that, please?

  6. I wish scarlet runner beans were hardy to zone 4! However, all the literature suggests that they will be perennial above about zone 9, in places with very mild winters. In zone 4, I can barely get them to ripen in time to save the seeds for planting next year.

  7. I will most definitely be picking up that book! -I do have to add that Hosta’s are very edible and delicious when the shoots are young and tender! H. Montana and H. Sieboldii are the two favored varieties.

  8. Nice article , however many people have animals like goats, cows and others that are allowed to graze – If there are any plants(rhubarb,fava beans,ferns) that might be dangerous to foraging livestock and or pets it would be nice to update the article with that info added. thank-you! Lynne

  9. Thanks for the info! I did not know scarlet runner beans were perennials either!
    Think I’ll plant some up against the trees between my yard & the neighbour’s & up against the fence on the other side.
    I also love my raspberries & even have some blackberries & got from the wild :)
    Have a few of the others mentioned here too & close to where I live we have fiddleheads & wild leeks.
    The leek leaves are milder than the bulbs. I freeze them (the bulbs too) which can be added to soups, stews and such in winter.
    A few leaves add a nice zest to salads when fresh.
    The slightly stronger older bulbs are nice pickled as well.
    Happy gardening & harvesting!

  10. I didn’t know Scarlet Runner beans and sorrel were perenniels! That’s really exciting because I grew both of those in my garden for the first time last summer. Once the weather gets warmer, I’ll have to be on the look-out to see if they come back again this year :)

    Thanks for sharing with Old-Fashioned Friday!

  11. What a great post Dawn! I am a great fan of watercress myself, but it’s tricky to grow unless you have running water I believe? Thank you for sharing your post with us and I hope to welcome you over at Seasonal Celebration again today! Rebecca @Natural Mothers Network x

    • Thanks, Rebecca! Yes, watercress is a popular perennial water garden crop for those who have small ponds or other water features in their garden.

  12. We just moved, so we’re starting over with our garden. I’ve only just grown asparagus as a perennial but scarlett runner beans and kale both grow well here. I will be pinning this post for future reference. Thank you again for sharing at the HomeAcre Hop! Hope to see you tomorrow.

  13. Great list! We grow a very few (berries, kale, rhubarb, garlic).

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us at Eco-Kids Tuesday! Hope you come back and visit today!
    http://likemamalikedaughter.blogspot.com/2013/03/nifty-thrifting-at-eco-kids-tuesday.html

  14. Thanks for the great information. I love my perennials and will have to incorporate more of the edible ones. 10 days till spring :)

  15. I can’t wait to have a garden! Apartment life can be so frustrating. Thank you for linking up with Wildcrafting Wednesdays!

    • Some perennials, like Scarlet Runner beans, can be grown in pots on a balcony or patio, and transplanted later. If you have a little outdoor space, don’t give up on gardening!

  16. I recently purchased a copy of ‘Perennial Vegetables’. It’s incredible! I do have a couple to add. Down here in TX my fennel is going on its second year with bunches of new bulbs growing from the original plant and my chard is starting its fourth year.

  17. Great Article. I have both books and think they are wonderful resources. I’m planting a new vegetable garden this year. I’m putting in as many perennials as possible.

  18. Nice post! Thank you for the resources.

  19. Fantastic article! “Thrives on neglect” is the magic phrase for me. I seem to kill everything! :) Visiting from the homeacre hop.

  20. Thanks for loads of great information on perennial veggies! I have grown the Egyptian Onions but they have not come back…I will have to look into them more. :)

  21. Thanks for sharing this on Eco Kids. I’m preparing to garden right now, and I would like to expand and really think about using my space wisely this year. This really helps- Thanks! (I’m sharing on Facebook and Pinterest too!)

  22. Thank you for this list! So far, I have not started growing perennial vegetables but would like too. This information is helpful to know and I will have to check into that book. Thanks!

    Lynn

  23. Thank you for this! I’m very excited to add some perennials (I’m thinking Scarlet Runner Beans) to my Tangle of Weeds… um… garden… this spring.

  24. Nice list! Thanks for participating!

  25. Excellent article! I just shared this on my Facebook page so everyone can learn more about planting perennial vegetables. Thanks!

  26. This is so wonderful. I got Gaia’s Garden as a gift and have been VERY slowly reading it but haven’t really dug in yet. Thanks for the nudge. Just so sensible a way to garden.

  27. How nice to see fiddleheads heading this post! We harvest them wild here in New Brunswick, and they are my number one favourite veggie! I didn’t know much about other perennial edibles, thanks so much for the info!

    • When do you harvest fiddleheads and how do you cook them. Recipe please.

      • They are harvested in early spring and can be prepared the same ways you’d prepare green beans.

      • Fiddlehead quiche is awesome. Just use a spinach quiche recipe and substitute with cooked fiddle heads.

  28. I found this post fascinating. I had not thought about perennial vegetables in this much detail before. I adore asparagus and rhubarb, but was interested to learn about the many other perennials that are out there.

  29. We love having our perennial asparagus and berry bushes. I would love to see about doing some more. Thanks for the great info on this!

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